Thursday, 8 September 2016

Conflict Versus Coalition of Civilizations



The 20th century’s assertion and held close to the heart of western scholars even in the 21st century that two civilizations or two alternative cultural entities must need a clash could be rebutted by the past and current episodes of reconciliation between various civilizations. The recent reconciliation between Iran and USA (West) is a clear sign of civilizational rapprochement because Iran represents strong historical connections across Middle East culturally and socially.


Putting it in other words, the West is forging alliances (military or economic) with Iran as the ‘other’ representative of Islamic world and out casting its traditional champions – the Sunni Saudi Arabia, to secure interests in Asia and beyond. Such a strategy is not a new invention. It was adopted by the West (Britain and Roman Catholic France) to align with the Ottoman Muslims against the Russian Christian Orthodoxy in 1854 and later with the Shiite Safavid Empire against the Sunni Ottomans. The history of empires and nations is full of deeds where only interests - not faith or ideologies dictate cooperation and conflict.

Robert D. Kaplan writes in The Atlantic, “The practical approach to Islamist terrorism is not always to fight terrorists everywhere, but to play Shiites against Sunnis and vice versa, depending upon the circumstances. By warming up to Iran, we would not be siding with the Shiites against the Sunnis per se, but rather manipulating both sides more effectively than we have in the past.”[i]

But as Robert D. Kaplan himself explains, it won’t be a complete end of alliance with Saudi Arabia but given the strategic nature of Middle East politics, a détente (Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia) would be the preferable policy option for United States[ii] to use each of them against balancing the other. 

Since being placed by USA in “axis of evil” alongside Iraq and North Korea immediately after Iranian Revolution of 1979, relationship between West and Iran has been facing upside down with little hopes of any thaw. The post 9/11 alliances of West against Taliban and Al-Qaeda provided both USA and Iran an opportunity to join hands against Taliban in Afghanistan. This period of cooperation was ended soon with the ouster of Taliban from Kabul. As the victories of USA in Afghanistan and Iraq proved short-lived, regional players like Iran have become important for the West. The influence of Iran in neighboring countries and her strong historical and cultural linkages in the region revived American and western interests in the country. Reconciliation with Iran is in the interests of United States to curb insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, to stop the civil war in Syria and to overcome the extremist Islamic State (IS). 

The hostile relations between different Christian states in medieval and early modern Europe endorsed the Ottomans to exchange diplomatic and military bonds with each of them in a unique way. If asking Ottomans for military aid and assistance was need of the hour for many Christian states of Europe at that time, nurturing military alliances with Iran and Syria is one of the important foreign policy goals for United States at present. Pakistan has remained one of the important military allies for USA in the latter’s proxy war against Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Nations cooperate and compete with each other in every age for strategic objectives. What become important are their mutual exchanges for evolutionary learning and reawakening. 

Thus, history always offers a space for reconciliation of civilizations without being conflicting about their respective inconsistencies. Military and cultural reconciliation of Christian emperors with mighty Ottomans in early modern Europe and military and economic interaction between Christian and Islamic world of modern times ascertain this belief. It is just another way of looking at things rather than becoming cross-civilizational about conflict of interests. 

Asma Yaqoob
Research Analyst
IRS, Islamabad

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